What: Serving breakfast to homeless and hungry
When: Sunday, 9-11am
I had never been to St. John the Divine before this Sunday, and was shocked when I arrived at the address and saw an enormous, beautifully ornate cathedral in the middle of Morningside Heights. I arrived right on time, and the kitchen was already bustling with volunteers and church staff, so be prepared to dive right in (after washing your hands and putting on an apron, hairnet and gloves, of course). Some people were doling out bowls of fruit cocktail, others were cutting bread. My task was to pour cans of orange juice into a big jug, ice it down, and then fill up cups. Obviously this wasn’t brain surgery; it was, however, the perfect job for an early Sunday morning after a very late Saturday night. While some people were finishing the breakfast preparations, others were starting on lunch, which is served at 12:30pm, and making take-away brown bag meals for later.
While filling up the juice, a regular volunteer gave me a few tips about the people who come for breakfast; some of them are HIV positive, others may be sick with a flu. It’s important to remember to keep everything covered; after filling a tray of juice cups, I had to stack another tray of juice on top. This way, if someone sneezes or coughs into the juice, at least the entire supply isnt contaminated, just one tray. If you’re given the job of serving the bread, feel around with your hand before breakfast starts to see which breads are soft; some people can’t chew hard or crusty breads because they have no teeth, or what’s left of them aren’t in great shape. Also, know which bread has raisins: it’s a hot ticket item. Unfortunately, a lot of them have illnesses that go untreated, because they don’t have access to healthcare or money for a medication they may need. This particular morning, a man fainted while we were getting ready to serve. They gave him some juice and a cold compress until the ambulance arrived; a lot of people said that he probably had diabetes but didn’t know, and had a drop in blood sugar that caused him to faint. Maybe he was just hungry, or the heat got to him. I’ll probably never know.
As breakfast starts, tables are called up to the buffet line one at a time and everyone is served before anyone is called up for seconds. This morning the menu consisted of scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, assorted breads and bagels with jam and butter, hot oatmeal, and fruit cocktail. Not too shabby. It made me want to reconsider my own breakfast choices, which usually consists of Cheerios or a buttered roll from the coffee guy on the corner. After everyone is done eating, you’ll help break down the buffet stations and clean some dishes. A Sunday morning well spent, and I was in Sheep’s Meadow with my copy of New York Magazine before noon. Other things to know:
-Try to arrive a little early, before things start to get hectic. Wear sneakers-you’ll be in a kitchen.
-St. John the Divine has a rich history dating back to the nineteenth century, and has been host to many important services and performances, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Duke Ellington to the Big Apple Circus. You may want to take a peak inside the church itself after you’re done volunteering; it’s pretty spectacular. I posted some not-so-good iPhone pictures below.
– My New York Cares team leader, Debbie, was really accomodating and allowed me to sign in for a volunteer day that was already full online. She, along with the entire staff and fellow volunteers, are extremely helpful and friendly, so don’t hesitate to ask questions.
-Your patrons may ask for more than they are supposed to get,or try to barter more of their favorites onto their plate (ie-“How about instead of eggs, I get 6 sausages instead of 2?”). This isn’t allowed, as there is a certain amount of food that is supposed to feed everyone. Kindly tell them no. And Don’t Feel Bad; everyone who is there knows the rules.
-Hungry? A Seinfeld fan? Head over to 112th and Broadway (the cathedral is on 111th and Amsterdam), and check out Tom’s Restaurant, the iconic diner from Seinfeld. The sign is the same, but the inside has undergone major remodeling since the show. But don’t get too excited-it’s just a diner, not Le Bernardin.